By Andrew Baldock, PA Rugby Union Correspondent
Wales star Taulupe Faletau says it is “hard to give your all” against the crushing contractual and financial backdrop that has engulfed Welsh regional rugby.
All four Welsh professional regions – Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets – face major funding cuts, leading to vastly-reduced contract offers for many players whose deals expire at the end of this season, and a player exodus appears inevitable.
Along with issues like Wales’ former 60-cap selection rule and fixed-variable contracts, off-field problems led to the threat of a players’ strike before the Guinness Six Nations clash against England last month.
Although a strike was averted and the England game went ahead as scheduled, Wales suffered a third successive Six Nations defeat.
And they now head to Rome for an appointment with Italy on Saturday, when another loss would effectively mean a first wooden spoon since Wales lost all five championship fixtures in 2003.
“It is just unfortunate, and the situation we are all in at the moment is not great for anyone involved,” said Cardiff number eight Faletau, who is set to win his 99th cap against the Azzurri.
“It’s not just Cardiff, it is all across the regions. It’s just a tough time we are stuck in at the moment.
“You are always going to try to put your best foot forward, but when things aren’t going well off the pitch it’s hard to give your all then.
“In rugby, we are all a family and are in it together at the end of the day. It is a tough period to see people struggling.”
Wales assistant coach Neil Jenkins, who was a member of the Bridgend-based Celtic Warriors squad disbanded after just one season in 2004, expressed sympathy with players caught up amid the current financial crisis.
Jenkins said: “It is not an ideal place to be in in any walk of life, in any job that you do, whether it be sport or outside of sport.
One of the most famous moments in Italian rugby history… with some equally memorable commentary 🎙#AwakenAnticipation | #ITAvWAL pic.twitter.com/f5QDK9BvVo
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 7, 2023
“People have got homes, families, mortgages, bills. It has not been a good time, and it is a tough time for the guys.
“There are jobs on the line and livelihoods on the line, that is the reality of it. We have to just keep our heads down and keep going. That is all we can do, and hopefully things are moving forward and getting resolved.”
While Wales have won their last seven Tests against Italy in Rome, the overall Six Nations record there shows two defeats (2003 and 2007), and the Azzurri famously claimed a last-gasp Principality Stadium victory 12 months ago.
Italy also continue to show significant improvement under head coach Kieran Crowley, producing some outstanding rugby – albeit in defeat – against France, England and Ireland.
“They are playing a certain style of rugby that is exciting to watch, but can also put you under the pump, under pressure,” Jenkins added.
“We’ve watched the games already in the Six Nations with France, England and Ireland – quality opposition that they have been up against – but they more than held their own.
“We are playing against a very, very good side and we need to be at full tilt, there is no doubting that, otherwise we could come unstuck.
🏉 A reminder of how the table looks before round 4 next weekend 💪#GuinnessSixNations pic.twitter.com/2E9eVkWO51
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 5, 2023
“They have got an awful lot of talent in the team, and they are not afraid to play from anywhere.
“I think they tend to make good decisions as well – it is not just based on throwing the ball about willy-nilly.
“They have got good structures and make good decisions. It will be a very, very tough test for us on Saturday.”